With the demise of George Fernandes comes to an end the life of one who was a warrior of the working class, an unimpeachable leader of Socialist movement, a titan who challenged the Emergency imposed on the country by Indira Gandhi in June 1975, and above all an unyielding fighter who found a place in people's hearts.
He departs after being cut off from public life – and mostly unknown to the new generation - for nearly a decade, while suffering from Alzheimer's disease. After carving his own niche as a stalwart of India's left-wing politics, however, in eventual political somersaults he evolved into an architect of an extreme right-wing coalition and thereafter went into obscurity, unseen by many. With such sequence of events, perhaps future historians will be constrained to record him as a perplexing personality.
Born into a conservative Catholic family, this Mangalorean entered the scene rebelling against the traditional order very early in life. Bidding bye to the seminary which his parents had selected for him, at the age of 18 he set off to Mumbai. It was while earning a living in the great city's streets as a labour that the revolutionary thoughts of Ram Manohar Lohia fascinated him, and he became a trade union leader and at the same time rose to become a socialist warrior. Soon he became the passion and inspiration of working classes through ceaseless struggles for the rights of industrial labour, and caught national attention in 1967 by flooring SK Patil a senior Congress leader in electoral battle. The railway employees' strike Fernandes mobilized as the president of All India Railwaymen's Federation – raising their rights and demands - happened when they were an entirely neglected lot and forced to work in miserable circumstances. When that strike brought to halt the country's rail transport for about 20 days, it became a milestone in the history of India's labour strikes.
But more than that, Fernandes would be marked by the country's history for his arrest in 1976 for openly challenging the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi government and his contesting the Lok Sabha election for Muzaffarpur constituency from jail and winning it with a huge margin of over 3 lakh votes. In the ministry formed after the election, he became Minister of Industries under Morarji Desai and quickly won laurels in that capacity when he bundled out multi-national giant Coca Cola. Later in the 1989-90 cabinet under VP Singh, he became Railway minister too.
But causing much damage to his image till then, what the country saw was the same Fernandes abdicating secular left politics and becoming part of the first sangh parivar government. He played a crucial role in forming the 24-party alliance of NDA and making an opportunity for Atal Bihari Vajpayee to lead the country in 1999. While being in charge of defence portfolio, he became the target of coruption allegation in the deal of purchasing coffins for the martyrs in the Kargil war. The reversals included being a victim of the Tehelka sting operation too. In the 2004 election, since he was denied a seat by his own Samata Party, he had to seek mandate as an independent candidate from Muzaffarpur constituency and tasted defeat. That made him virtually irrelevant in politics with no clout left any more. The later desertion by his wife Laila, when he was on the sick bed, and the entry of Jaya Jaitley to assume that role followed by a tussle between the two, all form the subsequent events of his biography.
What one can read into Fernandes's life is, albeit with a difference in version, the evolution and fall of India's socialist movement itself. The movement of India that derived the principles of secularism, socialism and progressive thoughts from the ethos of Indian National Congress, did get great opportunities to grow and become a vibrant opposition and later evole into a ruling party. The socialist block at one point had also enjoyed the mental support of even Jawaharlal Nehru.
That socialist stream which came to be led by giants like Jayaprakash Narain, Acharya Nadrendradev, Ahcarya Kripalani, Ashok Mehta, Ram Manohar Lohia, Raj Narain, HV Kamath, George Fernandes, Karpoori Thakur right upto Nitish Kumar, gradually disintegrated, became weaker and finally sank into obscurity only because of ego clash, internal conflict and power mongering. In retrospect, it was the absence of a socialist alternative to replace the Congress bedevilled by gerontocracy, that paved the way for an ultra Hindutva party to be hoisted to power. And that collapse of secular politics became the worst thing to happen to Indian democracy.